With the Fall sports seasons getting underway, different teams and organizations across the world are busy working to keep their athletes healthy and performing at a high level. Medical staff, sports scientists, coaches, and stats junkies alike, are all looking at data collected and analyzed to help make better decisions. Is an athlete ready to play? Which athlete is faster? Does this player thrive in a given situation? Is an athlete’s performance improving or not? While different types of data can allow us to make predictions on an athlete’s ability to perform, it has little value if the athlete isn’t available to play.
Availability is simple, was the athlete able to compete or not? So often we get distracted by chasing different goals and metrics while monitoring athletes throughout the competitive season. Many of these metrics can have value, but if an athlete isn’t ready to compete no one is happy. Availability is a great metric to use because it can be measured simply as a binary value: yes or no. Was the athlete able to suit up and play, or not? Obviously, things can get fuzzier when we look at some injury statuses like “as tolerated” and “questionable.” If we are honest, we can measure an athlete’s availability based on if the coach or manager can call their number when needed.
We had discussed before the value of stats such as snap counts and minutes played. The simplicity of these values is great because they are a common measure of ability and availability. If an athlete is good and healthy they will play, if they are missing one of these two, these statistics will show that… most of the time. But, it is important to note availability beats ability every time.
If we focus strictly on ability, there are many factors that cannot be influenced by performance coaches or medical staff. An athlete’s skill level, knowledge of strategy, and style play a few things that can often affect how much an athlete competes, but are typically not considered to be within a performance team’s scope of practice. In a particular game or situation, a coach may decide not to use a player. However, by keeping an athlete healthy and available, they can spend more time on things such as sport specific skill or strategy to improve their chances of being called on by the coach or manager. Keeping athletes healthy gives the opportunity to compete, and more opportunities to improve.
Strength and conditioning coaches are often tasked to design programs to improve performance and reduce injury. While we do believe these goals go hand in hand, a strong, fast, agile, injured athlete is not okay for anyone. While the goal of these professionals may be to prevent injury, the truth is preventing all injuries is an unrealistic goal. However, by understanding what predictive risk factors are modifiable and working to reduce/improve those, we can decrease the odds of an injury occurring. Whether athlete, soldier, patient, or weekend warrior, the goal should always be to keep the individual able to perform.
Medical professionals are most often tasked with an athlete’s rehabilitation protocol, working to get these people back after injury. These return to play protocols should be as conservative as necessary (to reduce the risk of re-injury) but as aggressive as possible (to get the athlete back). Measuring availability will help to hold both strength coaches and medical professionals accountable, as well as give them a common goal. When these two groups are aligned with a common goal, coordination and cooperation can take place.
There is no way to count the number of injuries that didn’t occur because of a coach’s program or intervention, nor is there any way to measure how much faster an athlete returned by following a specific rehab program. By tracking availability and injuries over time, we can assess our organization as a whole with a metric that has value for all parties involved.
There are countless different measures that are being tracked by sports organizations all across the globe, and this number is only increasing. As long as these metrics are reliable, valid, and organizations are making use of them; their use is often easily defended. But if an athlete is not able to compete, tracking anything else won’t matter much. Availability is truly a metric that matters to everyone: athlete, coaching, performance, medical, and administration. Availability is perhaps the most important ability of all.